Wildwood's commissioners made the right decision recently when they shelved plans for a March 5 referendum on instituting beach fees.

The fees were seen as a way to pay the growing costs of cleaning, guarding and maintaining the town's beaches, estimated at more than $1 million a year.

But after hearing from local business owners and tourism officials who opposed the plan, the commissioners had second thoughts.

We think they made the right call. The wide strands of Five Mile Beach are the envy of the rest of the New Jersey shore, and the fact that they are free gives Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood a priceless way to market themselves.

Each town along the coast tries to sell itself to tourists a little differently. Some claim to be a little more upscale, some a little more fun, some a little more family oriented than their neighbors.

Wildwood's vibrant Boardwalk and free beaches are a combination that's hard to beat - and a brand worth protecting. Since almost every other New Jersey shore town charges beach fees - Atlantic City is the other big exception - the Wildwoods' free beaches are seen as a draw that supports the entire island's economy.

That's something residents have seemed to realize over the years. Two previous votes on beach fees were rejected by Wildwood voters in 1976 and 1981.

In January, Joe Salerno, a Wildwood resident and businessman, summed up the argument against instituting beach fees pretty well. "I have a strong fear we're going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and that's the beach," he said.

Now, that's not to say we're against beach fees. The fees most shore towns charge - especially in the southern part of the state - are affordable, and there are still plenty of tourists on those beaches each summer. As we've said before, the decision on whether or not to charge beach fees should be a local one. It certainly shouldn't be determined by outsiders, such as the state lawmakers who have proposed banning beach fees in any town that accepts federal or state funds to replenish the sand on its beaches.

But it seems clear that the benefit Wildwood receives from its reputation for free beaches is much more valuable than the revenue from tags would be.

Wildwood officials are now seeking for other ways to balance the budget by looking at shared-service agreements with neighboring towns and by beefing up the schedule of special events held each summer on its beach.

Those are both promising avenues that could help give local taxpayers some relief without changing one of the things people love best about the town - its big, beautiful, free beaches.

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